By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - Florida Governor Charlie Crist, citing a tough economy, has defended his support for federal stimulus and a push to expand gambling in the state against conservative critics within his own Republican party.
Crist is fighting a rising conservative tide against his bid to become Republican nominee for the Senate. He used his final state of the state speech on Tuesday to call conservatives' criticisms "hollow ideological posturing" that make headlines but accomplish little.
"This year more than others, our achievements will be measured, not by the passion of our rhetoric, but our ability to be problem solvers and guide the ship of our state through the economic storm we are facing," Crist said.
Crist's comments came as lawmakers began a 60-day session in which they must close a $3 billion budget gap. Florida's deficit was brought on by sluggish home sales and a national recession that has taken the state's jobless rate to double digit-percentage levels not seen in more than three decades.
Despite the budget hole, Crist has asked lawmakers to boost funding for schools, spend $100 million on environmental preservation and find another $100 million for tax cuts to promote business and create jobs.
Further, Crist has called on lawmakers to spend nearly $500 million in state and federal incentives to boost renewable energy research and production and provide incentives to green technology companies.
He urged lawmakers to approve a gambling agreement with the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida that would generate at least $150 million a year for the state government.
While tourism and agriculture will continue to play prominent roles in Florida, the state must diversify its economic base by fostering new technology and retaining its participation in the nation's space and aerospace industries.
Dogged by conservative critics for his enthusiastic support of President Barack Obama's $787 billion federal stimulus package, Crist used the speech to counter arguments by his conservative detractors, saying he was simply seeking Florida's fair share of federal aid.
"Isn't it our duty to advocate for Florida to receive its fair share?," Crist said. "Is it more helpful to Floridians than engaging in hollow ideological posturing that achieves nothing?"
While Democrats applauded loudly as Crist recounted accepting the federal cash, Republican response was tepid.
House Republican Leader Adam Hasner said Crist's upbeat speech did not address an expected $6 billion shortfall lawmakers anticipate for fiscal 2012 after federal stimulus assistance ends.
Crist, in the meantime, will be out of state government, choosing to forgo a second term as governor for a shot at the U.S. Senate.
"While there was a lot of talk about steering the ship through difficult times, the reality is we're going to continue to face difficult times beyond this year," Hasner said.
(Additional reporting by Michael Connor in Miami; Editing by Andrew Hay)